Rules seem to be evolving on naming-officers policy

CRIME BEAT

January 28, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

On Sunday, two Baltimore police officers shot and killed a man who had broken into his ex-girlfriend's house, stabbed the pregnant woman several times in the back and refused to drop his knife. The department, under a new policy, has refused to make their names public.

Two days earlier, a shootout during an undercover drug buy left a city officer critically wounded and two suspects hit by bullets. Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III named not only the injured officer but also his partner, praising him for his "great deal of heroism" in continuing to fire his gun while helping his injured colleague.

So do police have a new policy prohibiting naming officers who shoot people or not?

The rules seem to be evolving.

The Police Department's new director of public affairs, Anthony Guglielmi, decided to end a long-standing policy of releasing names of officers who fire their weapons, saying it was necessary to protect them from people seeking to retaliate. I argued that releasing the names helped assure a skeptical public that police wouldn't shrug off internal investigations into the use of deadly force.

Guglielmi's directive had some exceptions aimed at preserving credibility. Names of officers involved in shootings deemed unjustified would be made public, while names of officers involved in shootings found to be within policy would not. Officials also will divulge the officers' age, rank, assignment, tenure, and whether they have shot someone before.

So did Bealefeld violate the new policy when he named Officer Daniel Harper?

Here's Guglielmi's explanation: "It is the policy of the Public Affairs Office that we will not disclose names of police officers who are involved in justified shootings. ... In unjustified police shootings, there will be complete disclosure. The commissioner, on a case-by-case basis, can and will release an officer's identity as he sees fit."

Guglielmi told me that withholding officers' names "is an officewide public affairs policy. It is not the policy of the department never to release the names."

I always thought the Public Affairs Office speaks for the commissioner and the department as a whole. If the policy about naming officers involved in shootings is on a "case-by-case" basis, then the department should say so. If Harper is a named a hero, what message does that send to other officers who aren't similarly praised?

Bealefeld has sent a letter to the City Council president and public safety chairman that explains the rules "as an informal policy" noting that the department investigated 23 threats against officers last year. The commissioner said officials took a "measured approach in balancing the public's right to know against personal security considerations."

We're not through January, and six city police officers have been involved in shootings that have left two people dead and three people wounded.

The heroes get public attaboys from the commissioner. The disgraced get named so the department can prove it is accountable. We're left to trust that the police are choosing the appropriate cases. Most shootings fall between these two extremes, and handling them openly and consistently would show that they are all receiving the same level of scrutiny.

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Read Peter's blog at baltimoresun.com/crime

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